The Water Blog Makes Government Communication Captivating

"The Water Blog" makes government communications captivating

Did you know there were 20 interesting things about the Portland Water Bureau? Think I’m joking? You haven’t met Jennie Day-Burget, Public Information Officer for the Bureau. Public information was never this engaging.

Armed with a successful blog and a growing Twitter following, Day-Burget provides a fascinating window into the life of city government. While the public sector is often late to catch on to tech trends due to tight budgets and old-fashioned bureaucracy, Day-Burget is taking advantage of the free and inexpensive social media tools available to anyone with an internet connection.

Whether it’s highlighting a water main during a winter freeze or posting a picture of the cutest koala bathing in a bucket, Day-Burget is doing to government communications what President Obama’s team did for political campaigns. Smart, edgy and informative, public information becomes must-read content in Day-Burget’s hands.

Portland Tap Water Sticker snapped in front of Chicago Water Tower

Portland Tap Water Sticker snapped in front of Chicago Water Tower

In December of 2007 when Day-Burget took over the blog, it had about 30,000 hits per month. One year later, hits had more than tripled to over 100K per month and January numbers had grown to 120K. But it’s not all about numbers either, it’s about exposure. Not only has the local paper, The Oregonian, started linking to “The Water Blog”, water conservation website is a fan and the blog has also been linked to in the New York Times Online. This kind of success with social media can be contagious.


Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard has Day-Burget to thank for his recent Twitter conversion. Her boss can be found twittering about his new tie right alongside talking about his official blog and other important city issues. And she isn’t stopping at the edge of her bureau’s domain, either. Day-Burget recently organized what she calls a “support group” of other communicators in municipal government. She explains, “We are all doing it, but not talking about it. Many of us are flying under the radar with our social media outreach.”

So, how much time does this public information officer spend keeping up on this outreach? Day-Burget says she spends about 3-4 hours a day on social media, but she finds that she can be stingy and make a bigger impact with traditional communication pieces like news releases, now that she has so many other ways to reach constituents on a more regular basis.

The next time you find yourself with a topic that seems too boring to communicate about, it’s possible that it is. It’s also possible, though, that you just need to breathe new life into it. Check out “The Water Blog” or follow @portlandwater on Twitter and you’ll discover a new way every day to make the run of the mill captivating for your audience.


I have become obsessed lately with the idea of social media for small business. Maybe it’s because I have many friends who own small businesses. Maybe it’s because the economy is in such turmoil and I want to support local business. Or perhaps it’s because I am also a small business owner and I know a lot of the ins and outs of living and breathing your business all day every day.

But if we are going to live and breathe our businesses, shouldn’t some of that energy go to increasing our reach and influence? And that’s what social media can do. There’s no silver bullet with social media. Whether you are sending out a mailer, newsletter, blogging or sending a Tweet through Twitter — you still have to draw in your audience and engage them. But when you have them engaged, the speed with which you can increase your reach with social media outpaces traditional media. How else do you think a dorky guy dancing in different places around the world can get 18 million views?

Of course, the dorky dancing around the world in different places has been done, so don’t book your round the world flight yet. And just like the lottery, don’t use social media for investment purposes. Seriously, though, using social media to try to get something to go viral (millions of views) is the quickest path to disillusionment. Rather, set yourself some achievable goals like the ones below and watch the every day magic that can take place in your business.

Social Media Goals in Small Bites

* Connect with 5 new people a week on your social network

* Start a blog with posts about my business linking to other relevant content (linking to other content in a blog post is one way to increase your reach beyond your own audience)

* Get a Twitter account and post twice a day

* Follow 5 new people on Twitter per week (often times, they will follow you as well!)

* Don’t let your marketing speak seep into your social media activity — people can sniff this out from a mile away

More tips to come: In the meantime, here’s John Jantsch’s take on social media for small business. Though I would put some things in a different order and break some of his rules, it’s a good introduction to the idea of social media for small business.

It can be nice to find out you were ahead of the times. Of course, many of the people who were ahead of their own times were only recognized posthumously. However, if finding out you were ahead of your time means that now that everyone’s caught up, more people have a voice even if they didn’t find it through me, so be it.

With the transition of the new President-elect comes many changes, but one of the best changes in approaches I have seen is how the Transition team is modeling good communication. There is always a time and place for top down communication — if you are the President, the people look for that kind of leadership from time to time. But one of the basic tenets of good communication is good listening. And President-elect Obama’s team have the right idea. They even have a great name for the tool they are using to listen to constituents — “Open for Questions“. Imagine if the Bush Administration had offered such a tool?

Of course, it’s one thing to put up a tool for people to provide feedback, it’s another to act on those ideas and questions in a meaningful way. Chatter Mill (the feedback engine I developed) is just one of the many suggestion-box style of tools that are popping up as social media becomes the norm. Uservoice and Google Moderator are others. I have been working with employee audiences using these types of feedback tools since 2002 and it’s great to see the importance of giving feedback gaining traction.

I couldn’t figure out the best way to come back to my blog after a much too long hiatus. It’s not that I have been sitting around trying to figure out what to do these past 11 months. No, as a female professional with dreams of having it all, I took the plunge (with my husband) into parenting this past year. So, if I didn’t blog enough before Elliott entered this world, his arrival ensured that I wouldn’t for several months.

The little angel (he doesn’t talk yet, you see) is sleeping next to me right now. The delicate sounds of my furious typing lull him into napdom quite easily. This boy will have social media down by the age of 2, which gets me back to the title of this post. The reason that I suck at social media is that I am a child of the pre 100% digital world. I came about in the late 70s. Things were still mechanical then — polaroid cameras were magic! So as much as I adore my MacBook, I am still largely an analog gal. Yes, 75% of my Christmas presents are bought online and I have chat open all day and I check Facebook and MySpace several times a day and I get Twitter withdrawal, but when it comes to social media, I am still largely a consumer rather than a captain of industry.

As someone who speaks on social media tools, I feel compelled to blog. Hence, I am back. But I fancy myself a serious writer. My blog post about Egg Nog on my personal site is truly moving. All jokes aside, I want to write when I feel I really have something to say. I hear my contemporaries talk (or blog or tweet) about the need to stay relevant in the blogosphere or twittosphere or whatever “osphere” is cool these days. Relevancy , friends (or followers) and links are the key to social media supremacy. And I do believe them. The people who are read have a high quotient in each of these categories. I strongly believe, though, that a critical ingredient is often overlooked — the burning platform.

The burning platform is not just content for content’s sake, it’s the passion, the drive, the urge to be heard and to say something that means something to someone. It doesn’t have to be deep, it can simply be letting off some steam or paying someone or something a compliment. But whatever it is that makes you want to communicate, make sure it’s not to meet a quota. If 11 months go by between posts like your friend here, your chance to be heard isn’t all lost. You just may need to discover a new way back in. For me, it came from a repeated push from my brother-in-law to start writing. He basically said, “Stop pontificating from the couch and get these ideas down.”

So, I can’t say that I will always have that deep, driving desire to say something, but here’s to hoping I will!

I was quoted in a recent article entitled, “Corporate intranets are in deep trouble, expert says“. Don’t worry, I am not the expert in the title, so this post is not a big pat on the back for myself. However, it did prompt me to share something that has been incubating for a while in my communicator brain — the intranet spectrum.

I have tried this concept out on two different seminar audiences and received good feedback. The best feedback, is of course, when your ideas are integrated into the way someone talks about a subject. And “the intranet spectrum” seems to do just that. It gets people talking about the intranet with a unified vocabulary and a vocabulary we are all familiar with.

I will be talking more about this spectrum in reference to the tools I feature here on my blog, so let me introduce you to the concept. Talking about the intranet (the intranet’s primary purpose is to distribute information effectively) using an analogy of government systems (a government’s primary purpose is to distribute resources) allows organizations and communicators to place their own intranet and intranet tools along a continuum which can be easily mapped to culture development within the organization. So just as government systems use varying methods and political ideologies for distributing resources, so can organizations use varying intranet tools and communication philosophies to distribute information to employees.


In my seminars, I have asked participants to place their own intranet on the spectrum. When doing this, the most important thing to keep in mind is that none of the points on the intranet spectrum are “bad” or “good” — where your intranet falls on the spectrum should relate directly to the kind of culture you are trying to develop inside your organization. And remember that the spectrum can also apply at the tool level. Your overall intranet might be “democratic”, but you may have some tools that are still “autocratic”. For example, perhaps  you have instituted forums with anonymous comments for employees to engage in dialogue, but all of your corporate articles are still vetted through an approval process through senior management.

The spectrum can also give you a strategic roadmap for convincing your leaders to share in your vision for developing your intranet. You can bridge their plans for development of the business culture, by using a shared vocabulary for talking about your plan for the intranet and how your communication strategy can help them achieve their vision for the organization.

Helpful tip!

Don’t feel tied to using the political system labels if they might turn off your leaders. Some leaders may not be able to see how an “anarchic” tool would work in their organization. If you are concerned about the labels, use the descriptions to guide your discussions with your leaders about intranet vision. However, I think a good shock to the system a la anarchy might be just the jolt corporate leaders need to get on the bandwagon for the intranet of the future!

One of the greatest things about running your own business is the ability to have some choice over the kind and variety of work you get to be involved in. My most recent project is a great example of this. While presenting in Dallas about the great advancement of interactive web tools in the past decade and how company intranets need to come out of the dark ages of 1995, my fellow colleagues at Blue Hill Solutions were busy working away on a client’s external website.

Yes, my friends, it’s important that one who teaches also do. So, while my passion is internal communication, I keep my web brain sharply tuned to the trends of the capital “I” Internet by managing external web projects in addition to my work on intranet tools.

queen_bee_screenshot.jpgJust today, Blue Hill Solutions, the company my husband and I founded in mid 2006 launched a brand new shiny e-commerce site for a local accessories company called Queen Bee Creations. And the amazing part is that we all (clients, design firm and Blue Hill) worked together to pull this off in 8 weeks. Now I am not one to toot my own horn, but I am sure you are asking yourself, “How did they do it?”

There’s a magic word that I spend a lot of time thinking about when I am at work, trying to understand the person at the drive-through window or just asking my husband what he’s thinking about when we are both silent while riding in the car (I will give you a hint…I am not thinking about rockets, but he is!). Anyway, the word I am talking about is C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-I-O-N!

A successful project will always come down to a bit of a hard work and a LOT of communication. And communication comes in many forms. There are the typical ways: face-to-face meetings, phone calls, an e-mail or a hundred here and there. But what I found really helpful with our project was the use of this online tool called Basecamp. We use it inside of our company for our internal projects as well, but what really made Basecamp a critical business tool for this project was that it brought together people (clients, designers and our software project team) who worked in different locations under one roof so to speak. If we needed to track a conversation on an issue we could without digging through e-mails and forwarding them on. We tracked milsetones and we were able to share images, documents and screenshots whether we were in Portland or not — all through the cooperative power of the Internet.

And this is what I mean when I talk about utilizing the power of the Internet to transform your company’s intranet. Your intranet should be a place that employees come to get information that helps them get their jobs done or make decisions or find the right people to involve. Using Basecamp for our project is just an example of the kinds of tools that are out there waiting for you. I will try to continue to highlight Internet tools here in this space and help you relate them to communication challenges. It’s time for the intranet to be more than just a company newsletter…let’s build that vision together.

It’s not often that one has the opportunity to say they were inspired by the government in Iraq. But I guess I finally get my chance after taking the summer off from blog postings. Now I imagine some of you were saying, “I am out here doing all this work to keep the communication industry in business and there’s Nova Newcomer taking the summer off from blogging as if we aren’t relying on her for her genius!” Or something like that. And I said “imagine” and “some,” so I am off the hook for those who didn’t notice my absence!

The good news is that when I take time off, I come back with a vengeance. The kind folks at Ragan have again provided me a chance to impart my theories on the intranet to unsuspecting communicators. So, if you have some continuing education budget left, sign up for the Communications Roundup hosted by Southwest Airlines and Ragan.

My session is titled, “Remake your corporate intranet to match the power of the Web.” In the session, you will:

  • Learn how today’s Internet advances can transform your intranet into a critical business tool
  • Discover creative uses of web technology that deliver the information and experience your employees need
  • Find how to bridge the gap between your intranet today and what Generation Y employees will expect tomorrow
  • Get a glimpse into the future of intranets
  • Apply online tools to real communication challenges
  • Make the case internally for the intranet of the future

Hope to see you there!